The Battle Of The Presses

The report on Russian TV last week didn't mince words or images. First, American actor Martin Sheen warned of a return to McCarthyism and an incipient "witch hunt" against anyone who dared criticize the Bush administration's war plans for Iraq. Then police were shown cracking down on university students staging a peaceful antiwar demonstration in New York. And just in case the message wasn't clear, a crawl along the bottom of the screen underscored it: Phil Donahue fired from TV for antiwar stance.

It's not quite a return to the cold war, but Russian media coverage of U.S. policy on Iraq these days is rife with misinformation. After Secretary of State Colin Powell waved a small, empty vial during his recent presentation on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to the U.N. Security Council, one state-owned Russian network dramatically "revealed"--in classic Soviet fashion--that the bottle actually hadn't contained any anthrax. (Powell never claimed it had; he was merely showing how little was necessary to wreak mass devastation.) When the Russian pop duo Tatu wore T shirts bearing obscene antiwar slogans on American TV, the Russian press treated them as heroically as if they had stormed the White House. Meanwhile, a Russian publishing house recently issued a translation of Gore Vidal's "Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace," which one newspaper declared "banned from publication" in the United States. (It was a best seller.)

As Russians see it, they have a thing or two to teach America about press freedom. "Today in Russia there is much more freedom of speech" than in America, said Russian talk-show host Vladimir Pozner to Russian TV, defending his old friend Phil Donahue, who once organized a series of "telebridges" between Russian and American audiences back in Gorbachev days. (Donahue's latest show on MSNBC was canceled--but because of poor ratings, according to his network.) Never mind that all three of Russia's national TV networks and most of its papers are under close state control, or that coverage of the war in Chechnya, for example, is subject to government censorship.

It's not hard to see where the Russian media get their sense of moral superiority. A recent poll showed that 87 percent of Russians oppose war in Iraq. That emboldens the press to give America a taste of its own medicine. Earlier this year, when the U.S. State Department criticized the dismissal of an independently minded Russian TV executive as a blow against press freedom, a Russian parliamentary deputy immediately issued a counterstatement. He voiced "concern" over the firing of CNN executive Walter Isaacson--a move, the deputy said, that might be "connected to the U.S. administration's attempts to control the coverage of the upcoming U.S. military operation in Iraq." Let the war of words continue.